Oysters planted on controversial reef

Despite concerns, Severn River site uses steel slag

By PAMELA WOOD, Staff Writer
The Capital, Published08/24/10

Pamela Wood — The Capital Capt. Doug West uncovers a pile of oyster shells with millions of baby oysters (or “spat”) attached to them, which are about to be planted on a reef in the Severn River. The reef was made, in part, with steel slag, which has caused some river advocates to worry about whether the material has toxic chemicals that might harm people or the environment.

In looping circles, Capt. Doug West maneuvered the massive Robert Lee back and forth along two sections of the Severn River yesterday.

Steering with his left hand, he used his right hand to push four levers back and forth to control a high-powered hose that washed a mountain of oysters on the deck into the depths of the river below.

By day's end, more than 11 million baby oysters were placed in new homes on the floor of the river, but not everyone is happy about it.

The oysters are typical - tiny specks on larger oyster shells, created at a University of Maryland lab on the Eastern Shore.

It's the oyster reefs themselves that are atypical and causing concern.

Instead of using oyster shells to create the base for the baby oysters, these reefs were built by the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers using "alternative" materials: concrete, granite and steel slag.

Slag is a byproduct of the steel-making process, and questions have been raised as to whether it might contain toxic substances.

A total of 2,015 cubic yards of slag from the Sparrows Point steel mill in Baltimore County was set down on two spots in the Severn. One is called Peach Orchard and the other is called Wade, and both lie between the Severn River Bridge and the Naval Academy Bridge.

While the oysters won't ever be eaten - the Severn is off-limits to harvesting - some worry whether the slag could harm the ecosystem.

Before putting the steel slag in the river in December, the Corps of Engineers wrote up a lengthy environmental assessment report, or EA, that did not mention any health or safety concerns.

The report read, in part: "All alternate substrate chosen for oyster bar and reef restoration would be determined to be clean and environmentally suitable by previous studies."

Claire O'Neill, the project manager for the corps, said she didn't anticipate any problems with the slag.

"A year and a half ago, when we did the EA, no one raised it as a red flag. Believe me, it's a red flag now," she said.

After concerns were raised, corps officials met with local residents and pledged to do testing at the Severn site and at a site in Eastern Bay that had previously been planted with steel slag. O'Neill said they'll look at chemicals from the slag and to see if they are getting into the oysters.

"We're going to do the extra monitoring, which we wouldn't have done," O'Neill said.

But even as the oysters went overboard yesterday, some said they aren't satisfied with how the corps handled their concerns.

Sally Hornor, an Anne Arundel Community College biology professor who is actively involved in issues on both the Severn and Magothy rivers, said she hasn't seen the details of the promised studies.

She pointed to a recent National Public Radio report on a site in New Jersey's Raritan Bay where slag was used to build jetties and retaining walls - and the material is leaching lead, arsenic and heavy metals.

After hearing that, Hornor said, "I became even more concerned about the possible toxicity problems that may occur as a result of the slag that was placed in the Severn."

Likewise, Kurt Riegel, a past president of the Severn River Association, said he has been let down by the corps. Riegel said he has been unable to get the corps to turn over reports it has cited showing that slag is safe.

O'Neill said she and her agency have done everything they can - short of removing the slag - to address the concerns.

"I don't think we want to go in there and tear it all out," she said. "I don't think that's warranted."

(Revised August 2010)